Punk: the ultimate DIY movement. In the mid-1970s, when corporate-crafted mainstream rock ruled the airwaves, punk rockers smashed through the norm and made their own noise. Loud, fast-paced, galvanising and unafraid, the best punk bands have been soundtracking rebellion for almost 50 years. But now we take on the gargantuan task of asking: who are the best punk bands of all time?
Spanning the genre’s origins, to forming its own subgenres, let’s rank the best punk rock bands and delve into their legacies.
The number of fantastic punk bands is virtually endless. We’ve included some founding fathers of the genre, as well as more modern legends. If we left out your favourites, write a Sex Pistols cover called ‘Anarchy In Music Gateway’ and let us know your picks!
Pioneering the never-returning devilock hairstyle and a horror aesthetic considered campy by modern standards, the Misfits certainly were a sight to behold. To the dismay of 1980s parents across the globe, this band was the progenitor of one of punk’s first subgenres; ‘horror punk’.
Diverting from their punk influences, lead vocalist and songwriter Glenn Danzig eschewed political lyrics for songs based on horror movies. Clad in leather and make-up, this aesthetic went on to influence the use of horror imagery in future metal bands; for example, campily so in Black Veil Brides, or more seriously in Slipknot. Horror punk, though, never really reared its head again after the 1980s – but the Misfits still remain iconic.
One of the best female punk bands to exist, Savages absolutely deserve a spot on our list. Being a male-dominated genre, it’s rare to see female-fronted punk bands, and yet rarer to see an all-female one. But this isn’t simply what earns them their place in our top ten. Savages are one of the most lauded punk (and post-punk) bands of the 2010s.
Post-punk is a subgenre of punk that has, more or less, completely dominated punk rock in the past couple decades. It’s a broad definition, but post-punk originated when bands began to incorporate more alternative and experimental elements into punk music. Savages are at the top of their game when it comes to post-punk, moreover maintaining that raw energy and political fury that punk is iconic for.
Not only is Green Day undoubtedly one of the best pop-punk bands; they are also one of the overall most successful bands of all time.
Selling over 75 million records worldwide and nominated for 20 Grammys, punk purists may baulk at Green Day’s place on our list. Nevertheless, the band influenced the direction of 1990s and early 2000s punk more than any other.
Considered one of the progenitors of pop-punk (punk’s second major subgenre, alongside post-punk), Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot is iconic. Heralded as protest art against George W. Bush’s presidency, and considered among the best albums of all time, Green Day cemented themselves as an incredible punk band; and as pioneers of the budding pop-punk subgenre.
There’s no band more punk than Pussy Riot. While often eschewing the traditional guitar-led approach for electronic sounds, there’s nothing more punk than serving time in prison for your anti-establishment music.
Put simply, Pussy Riot are the biggest badasses in punk. This art collective of mostly anonymous Russian women has spent a decade actively protesting Vladimir Putin’s rule; regularly putting themselves in harm’s way to get their message heard. They rarely perform organised live shows, instead opting for guerrilla performances in their trademark acid-colour balaclavas. No punk band has ever put their money where their mouth is as much as the notorious Pussy Riot has!
Where to begin? Despite their short two-year run, the Sex Pistols are undeniably the band that comes to mind when someone says ‘punk’.
Credited as one of the most groundbreaking acts in music’s history, the Sex Pistols were the godfathers of British punk. Taking the charts by storm in the mid to late 1970s, their obscenity, nihilism, and abrasiveness were horrifying to parents, and galvanising to everyone else.
Their infamous single God Save The Queen is often given credit for formulating the sound of UK punk rock. In 1977, its presence was unavoidable – despite it being the most heavily censored record in British history. That fact alone should illustrate how influential the Sex Pistols were. God Save The Queen, despite its anti-monarchist message, reached unprecedented heights; it inspired protest in a whole generation, and irrevocably ruptured what it meant to be British.
Firstly, an apology to IDLES vocalist Joe Talbot, who maintains that the band doesn’t identify with the ‘punk’ label. It’s just a shame that IDLES are widely hailed as the best post-punk band in decades!
With eight years of practice before they released their debut album Brutalism, it’s no wonder that it’s considered a masterpiece. IDLES grabbed post-punk by the throat and created one of the most cohesive, exhilarating, ferocious records that the genre ever heard. They took the political fury and satire found in punk’s 1970s and 1980s origin, adapted it for our current political climate, and injected it with the intellectual and emotional maturity that punk was often seen to lack.
IDLES’ second album Joy as an Act of Resistance was also hailed as a masterpiece; as was their third Ultra Mono earlier this year. If you’re looking for a starting point to modern punk, then IDLES is the way to go.
Black Flag are widely credited with being one of the first real innovators of the punk genre. The band is considered the pioneer of hardcore punk; traditional punk delved further into the underground scene with faster drumming, crunchier guitars, and more aggressive vocals.
Not only did Black Flag birth their own subgenre, but they also had an enormous influence on United States punk. Their sound would evolve over the decades to birth the post-hardcore subgenre, and many standard practices in modern metal and post-punk.
Where their punk predecessors like the Ramones formulated the genre with fast, short, simplistic rhythms and melodies, Black Flag were one of the first to truly experiment. They often shifted tempo, included atonal melodies and guitar solos, and even broke into free jazz sections. These guys provided a revolutionary perspective on punk songwriting, and kickstarted the hardcore punk sound; that’s why they’re number 3 on our list of the best punk bands.
When you first look at the Ramones, you don’t immediately think ‘punk’. Where’s the spiked hair? The cigarettes and gap-toothed grins? There’s a reason for that – because the Ramones were punk before punk was even invented.
The Ramones are widely credited for being the first-ever punk band. They formed in New York in 1974, and formulated the punk sound that would become so iconic over the next few years across the Atlantic; that being raw, catchy three-chord riffs and fast, straight drum beats. You know that ‘Ay! Oh! Let’s go!” song that exists anonymously in everyone’s head? That’s actually the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop.
Despite seeming utterly non-threatening in comparison to the likes of the nascent Sex Pistols and Black Flag, the Ramones established themselves as one of the most revolutionary groups in the history of music. They toured virtually nonstop for 22 years, playing a total of 2,263 gigs. Their songwriting and performances birthed punk, and by extension every single genre that can be derived from punk – a truly amazing feat.
An affront to the American establishment from their name alone, it was the Dead Kennedys that became public enemy no.1 in the late-1970s and 1980s. Smashing out of the underground hardcore scene into the public eye, the Dead Kennedys were the USA’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols.
Where the New York hardcore scene had been largely apolitical, Jello Biafra – frontman of the Dead Kennedys – made sure to deviate. This band was the USA’s first real experience of an aggressive counterculture band taking a generation by storm, and boy, did they cause a ruckus. Every step of the way their efforts were hounded by the notorious Parents Music Resource Center, virtually resulting in an all-out culture war.
Musically, the Dead Kennedys performed similarly to fellow hardcore punks Black Flag. Their tracks were far crunchier and ferocious than standard punk, which paired extremely satisfyingly with Biafra’s volatile political commentary. Their sound was just as revolutionary as any other of the best punk bands on our list – in fact, probably more so. The Dead Kennedys are no doubt one of the best hardcore punk bands of all time.
And there they are – no doubt the one you’ve been waiting for! The Clash is in the unique position of not only being considered the greatest forefather of punk bands, but also one of the genre’s primary innovators.
It might surprise you to learn that The Clash actually missed the boat for the first wave of punk rock, despite being so iconic in the genre. They formed in London in 1976, after the Sex Pistols were already making themselves notorious. Equipped with two incredible songwriters by the names of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, The Clash moulded punk rock into a more versatile genre, breaking up its simplicity without turning it hardcore; influences included reggae, ska, and rockabilly music.
Moreover, where the Sex Pistols’ nihilism was often too much to stomach, The Clash were politically charged with ideas. Instead of utter disregard for anything, The Clash became Britain’s leading voice for left-leaning change, and influenced an entire generation to get involved with politics. This was truly revolutionary at the time – where politics had previously remained not a matter for the youth, The Clash upended British culture. Not in a destructive manner, but in a constructive one.
For their unbeatable influence, both musically and culturally, it’s The Clash that gets our number one spot for the best punk band of all time.
From its origins in the 1970s, to modern punk legends that continue to make music in 2021, those were our top punk rock bands of all time. Whether nihilistic or idealistic, traditional or experimental, with a criminal record or a clean sheet, there’s no doubt that all the good punk bands on this list are legends in their own right.
A lot of punk fans tend to stick to their own era, so we’ve made sure that our list includes not only the founders, but the innovators too. If you’re a classic punk fan, make sure to check out what the new kids on the block are doing with the sound; IDLES and Savages are a great starting point. Likewise, if you’re a post- or pop-punk fan, give a listen to The Clash or the Dead Kennedys. Whatever the case, you’re bound to end up smashing something.